‘Already an Exception’: Merkel’s Legacy Is Shaped by Migration and Austerity


CHEMNITZ, Germany — Two weeks after announcing that she would not seek another term, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was standing in an old locomotive factory in the eastern city of Chemnitz, the scene of far-right protests this year.

Outside, 2,500 protesters shouted: “Merkel must go!” Inside, 120 people — more polite but scarcely less hostile — had come to challenge the chancellor on her legacy, which on this November afternoon was mostly reduced to one thing: her 2015 decision to welcome more than a million migrants into Germany.

“You said we would manage,” one man said, quoting Ms. Merkel’s now famous mantra back at her. “But we’re not managing.”

As Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Party gathers this week to choose her successor as party leader — and the likely future chancellor of Germany — the values she embodied through 13 years in power are in danger. Some now ask whether her leadership, in particular on migration and economic austerity, helped plant the seeds of the forces now tearing Europe apart.

Ms. Merkel has pledged to finish out her term, which ends in 2021. But even if she defies the political obituary writers, the time in between is likely to be less than a victory lap for a chancellor who has been the face of stability in Germany and Europe, for better or worse.

“I know my face is polarizing,” Ms. Merkel conceded in Chemnitz. That is true in Athens, Budapest and Rome as well.

Ms. Merkel has been both chancellor of Germany and the leader of Europe. She steered her country and the continent through successive crises as she helped Germany become Europe’s leading power for the first time since two world wars.

No one has shaped the Europe of today more than this vicar’s daughter from the former Communist East who was celebrated as the guardian of the liberal Western order.

Ms. Merkel allowed Germans to be proud again, but on her watch the old demons of nationalism stirred back to life, too. The European Union she fought so hard to preserve is assailed by populist leaders.

Those contradictions rest at the core of the Merkel legacy. As German chancellor, Ms. Merkel oversaw a golden decade for Europe’s largest economy, which expanded by more than a fifth, pushing unemployment to the lowest levels since the early 1980s.

As the United States was distracted by multiple wars, Britain gambled its future on a referendum to leave the European Union and France failed to reform itself, Ms. Merkel’s Germany was mostly a haven of stability.

But her decision to embrace more than a million asylum seekers unsettled that cozy status quo. Outside Germany, the austerity she and her longtime finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble imposed on debtor countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal and, especially, Greece sowed misery and resentment that fester to this day.

Some, like the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, compare Ms. Merkel’s austerity politics to the Treaty of Versailles, which imposed punitive economic measures on Germany after World War I, humiliated the country and fanned the flames of populism.

“This is now what is feeding the political beasts,” Mr. Varoufakis said.

Many of her postwar predecessors had strongly defined legacies. Konrad Adenauer anchored Germany in the West. Willy Brandt reached across the Iron Curtain. Helmut Kohl, her onetime mentor, became synonymous with German unity. Gerhard Schröder paved the way for Germany’s economic success.

Ms. Merkel’s legacy is more fragile.

She gave power a female face, and some say she softened politics and made it easier for her country to resume its historic dominance in Europe. She was careful never to boast about what had been regained. But she also failed to instill in her people a sense of responsibility and solidarity for fellow Europeans.

Her modest and moderate governance style, absent ideology and vanity, is the polar opposite of that of the strongmen now strutting the world stage. Her Germany — that “vulnerable hegemon,” as the intellectual Herfried Münkler calls it — became a beacon of liberalism.

But like her friend and ally President Barack Obama — America’s first black president, who was succeeded by President Trump — Ms. Merkel will be judged by what comes next.

“Angela Merkel personifies the best Germany we’ve ever known,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European Studies at Oxford University. “She managed Germany’s rise to once again become Europe’s leading power. But she failed to prepare Germans sufficiently for what that means.”

On a sunny afternoon in June 2006, Ms. Merkel was standing at the window of the chancellery in Berlin, waving to the crowd of soccer fans below who were making their way to a gigantic outdoor screen.

An avid soccer fan herself, she had been chancellor for only seven months when Germany hosted the men’s soccer World Cup — and when, across the country, German flags began fluttering proudly from car mirrors and apartment windows.

The German team came third that year. But the tournament soon entered folk memory as “the summer fairy tale” — the rebirth of a liberal German patriotism in a country where national pride had long been taboo.

“That fledgling national pride that had been kept down for so long was allowed to come out, because at the very top was someone who was incredibly sensitive,” said Evelyn Roll, one of Ms. Merkel’s biographers.

Or as Ines Pohl, the editor in chief of the public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, put it: “Angela Merkel allowed Germans to be proud again.”

Ms. Merkel has never been one for rousing speeches. (“We had those kinds of speeches 70 years ago,” Ms. Roll said. “Her lack of talent and interest in this department was a good thing.”)

She never boasted that Germany got what it wanted after summit meetings (though it mostly did). But as exports and domestic demand boomed, Germany prospered and so did Ms. Merkel’s popularity ratings.

Some say her status as a double outsider — a woman who had grown up in the East succeeding in a world of Western, mostly male politicians — ultimately changed Germany.

Gregor Gysi, a fellow Easterner and political opponent from the Left party, said that spending half her life under Communism gave her a visceral thirst for freedom — but also made her more socially conscious than other Western conservatives.

Over the decade that followed, she nudged her country and her conservative party to the left: New parents obtained generous new benefits, nuclear power was abandoned and same-sex marriage became legal.

“Merkel knows a different form of social and societal equality,” Mr. Gysi said, adding of her former center-left rivals: “That made her so much more open to adopting ideas from the Social Democrats.”

It helped that she could be an incredibly skilled, even ruthless, tactician.

“I know something about coalition politics,” an aide to David Cameron recalled her telling Britain’s then prime minister in 2010, when he entered a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. “You’ll be fine, but your junior partner will be destroyed.”

Indeed, now in the third so-called grand coalition with the Social Democrats, Ms. Merkel’s habit of taking inspiration from (and credit for) their ideas has left the party a shadow of itself.

It has also opened her own party to challenges on its right flank, leaving room for the emergence of the nationalist Alternative for Germany, which capitalized on her decision on asylum seekers.

Nine years after the 2006 World Cup, Germany’s summer fairy tale had a short-lived sequel.

In the summer of 2015, as hundreds of thousands of migrants were pushing into Europe, and Hungarian and Austrian officials asked for her help, Ms. Merkel obliged. Germans lined the platforms, clapping as the migrant trains rolled in.

Ms. Merkel’s own image as the austerity chancellor had troubled her, she told her biographer Stefan Kornelius. In the throes of the migrant crisis, she showed neighboring countries a more generous Germany. It was a moment of redemption for her nation.

The French president François Mitterrand and his British counterpart Margaret Thatcher had both worried about a resurgence of “bad Germans.” Ms. Merkel’s greatest achievement, Ms. Roll said, was that “she came to represent the good Germans.”

Her 2015 decision won her admiration from far beyond her own political camp.

“In this world where more and more walls are being built, literally, she did the right thing,” said Claudia Roth, vice president of the German parliament and a member of the Greens. ‘‘She had principles.”

“It won Germany incredible respect — this image of a friendly humanitarian Germany, a Germany that protects,” Ms. Roth said. “She marked that image.”

But it was not long before cracks started appearing at home. Alternative for Germany, founded in 2013 as a euroskeptic party at the height of the euro crisis, got its second wind in 2015 with the arrival of the migrants.

Three years later, the party is the third largest in the federal parliament and sits in all regional parliaments, too.

“German populism is perhaps not her child,” said Henrik Enderlein, the dean of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “But it is a child of the Merkel era.”

Ms. Merkel’s decision on migration was the most defining moment of her chancellorship. It softened her image. But in her immediate neighborhood, coming deep in a lost economic decade, it did not quite have the healing effect she intended.

To some, it cemented her reputation as dictating terms to the rest of a reluctant Europe, particularly in a south that had borne the brunt of the continent’s dual economic and migration crises.

In 2012, the first time it appeared that Greece might have to leave the currency union, caricatures of Ms. Merkel began circulating in the country: Ms. Merkel with a Hitler mustache. Ms. Merkel as a domina, her leather boot on southern Europe. Ms. Merkel as a puppet of Mr. Schäuble, the mastermind of the austerity doctrine.

Even before the migration crisis arrived, the debt crisis provided a pivotal test for a chancellor at the helm of a newly dominant Germany.

And it led to criticism that Ms. Merkel, while leading humbly, was no less the hegemon — prioritizing German interests; manipulating European Union institutions to Germany’s abiding benefit; turning southern countries into captive export markets; tightening the hold of German banks.

Was hers a European Germany, one that saw Europe’s interests as its own? Or a Germany that ultimately wanted a German Europe?

Many economists, and even Mr. Obama, called for looser policies, but Ms. Merkel held firm. The debate still rages over whether greater flexibility would have restored growth faster, as her critics contend, or whether fiscal restraint was needed to safeguard the euro currency, as Ms. Merkel and her supporters argued.

The real missed opportunity, observers say, was to use the crisis to propel a more far-reaching build-out of European Union institutions, which remain unprepared for the next financial meltdown.

If there was ever a time to make a bold push to complete the institutions of the eurozone, this was it, said Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister.

“An Adenauer or a Kohl would have done it,” Mr. Fischer said. But Merkel, who had grown up behind the Iron Curtain and without the Western pro-European mind-set, “wasn’t there yet,” he said. “Her European conscience was not fully formed yet.”

The absence of vision at that time is “the biggest minus on her record,” said Mr. Garton Ash, of Oxford.

But if Ms. Merkel’s upbringing meant that her European consciousness took longer to form, it perhaps made her bolder in other areas, like standing up to Russia and Mr. Trump, as well as her decision not to close Germany’s borders to migrants.

“Of course you can build walls,’’ said Gerald Knaus, the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative, who has advised Ms. Merkel on migration for over a decade.

“But she always made clear: ‘I don’t build deadly walls,’ ” he recalled her saying. “She grew up behind one.”

One early verdict on Ms. Merkel’s legacy will be pronounced on Friday, when delegates of her Christian Democrats gather at a party congress in Hamburg and vote for a new party leader.

A vote for Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the party’s general secretary, known as A.K.K., would be an endorsement of the chancellor’s quietly centrist course. It would also be a strong signal for women at a time when strongmen politics are gaining momentum in Europe and beyond.

“If A.K.K. succeeds Merkel, it would be her masterpiece — another woman, confident, unpretentious, who continues her liberal course,” Mr. Knaus said.

A vote for Friedrich Merz, a former Merkel rival and millionaire with a visceral sense of self-confidence, would suggest that in Germany, too, the yearning for more charismatic — and male — leadership has won the day. Mr. Merz once voted against criminalizing rape in marriage.

In Germany, too, politics has become noisier and nastier. Open sexism has entered the chamber with Alternative for Germany, said Ms. Roth, the vice president of the parliament.

“Merkel has been the target of countless attacks, gendered attacks, sexualized dirt,” Ms. Roth said.

“She is the enemy, and the way she has been personally attacked as a woman is awful,” she said. “That would not happen to a white man. And still, she remains upright, chin raised, and keeps working.”

Some have begun to referring to Merkelism, a modest but steadfast liberalism built on consensus rather than confrontation, as a recipe for democratic governance in the 21st century. Others fear that Merkelism will disappear with her.

“She is so unvain that she does not overly care about leaving behind a blueprint for the West 4.0,” said Mr. Kornelius, her biographer. “She primarily wants to preserve what she can.”

She has prevented crises rather than carried out visions, Mr. Kornelius said, and has been reactive rather than proactive. “But that is incredibly valuable at a time when we are dealing with questions of our liberal order in an unraveling world — and with leaders like Donald Trump.”

To her fans she is a reminder of a time when liberal democracy was expanding across the world.

Today, Ms. Merkel’s Germany can feel like a liberal island in a growing sea of illiberal forces. She has not changed — the world around her has.

“She is already an exception today,” Mr. Knaus said. “I hope she is not a relic of an era that is coming to an end.”

Even some of her fiercest enemies look with trepidation to a future without her.

“She was a catastrophe,” said Mr. Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, “and she will be missed, because who comes next will certainly be worse.”

Source : Nytimes